I dreaded seeing “Ender’s Game.” A movie based on another one of those sci-fi book series in which the author spills out a million or two or three words about some imagined future is a story in which I have no stake — nor want one.
I haven’t read any of Orson Scott Card’s books but, go figure, the movie totally captivated me.
It’s like a Harry Potter movie but so much more intriguing — to me at least. In fact, I do wonder how much J.K. Rowlings stole, — sorry, borrowed — sorry again, was inspired by these novels by Card. Just wondering, mind you.
You have an exceptional child thrown into a school, this one being not about magic but much more militaristic, to learn how to combat some vague evil. So the story is essentially a coming-of-age story masquerading, very well, in sci-fi garb.
I won’t bother you with too much plot — because either you know it already or just want to cut to the chase and see if the damn thing is worth a considerable outlay of money especially in Imax. Which is how I saw it.
Imax, by the way, works great but I’m sure the story will work just fine on a normal screen size.
Actually, reciting that plot works to the detriment of your interest. Were I to get too deep into it, your eyes may glaze and you’ll say, as I did when reading the press notes, Okay, I get it. This is a set up for a sci-fi/geek series of movies that speak only to those pledged to the sanctity of the holy books.
He has found a way to bring a modern-day kid, who’s into computer games and battling an astonishing number of bullies at school, into a Big Deal science fiction movie. “Ender’s Game” is about a military training school/prep academy that references movies such as “Star Wars,” “The Right Stuff,” “Star Trek,” “War Games,” “If…” and the list goes on.
I’m not sure where Hollywood is going with these heroes who can’t even shave but there’s Harrison Ford (a whiff of “Star Wars”) as the lad’s stern commander/instructor to assure you he has the Right Stuff.
Okay, so there’s this miraculous Earth boy named Ender Wiggins (“Hugo’s” Asa Butterfield), who was born and bred, it would seem, to be a combatant against an alien species called the Formics. The latter would appear to be the villains but they never enter the picture until it’s nearly over. In any event, they are skeletal bugs that act an awful lot like our own bees only much larger and piloting aircraft.
During one prescient moment, Ford’s Col. Graff — Gruff would be more appropriate — declares “I am not the enemy.” Enders responds that he’s not so sure. So bear that in mind: This kid is understandably suspicious of all elders, and for good reason as you find out.
Come to think of it, he’s pretty suspicious of people his own age too other than a beloved sister (Abigail Breslin).
Training sessions are reminiscent of the Harry Potter game of Quidditch only in a vast zero-gravity battle simulation arena on a space station far out in space. Here they play a kind of laser tag, one team against the other, under the scrutiny of the authority figures played by Ford, Viola Davis and Ben Kingsley.
Here in this arena, Ender becomes close friends with Hailee Steinfeld’s (“True Grit”) Petra and a mortal enemy of Moises Arias’ Bonzo Madrid.
The question that arises with all these dangerous games and extracurricular fights in dorms and bathrooms is how much violence Ender is willing to deploy. It’s never a question of whether he’s in the right or wrong; he never starts any of the fights.
Rather just how much of a sociopath does his society want him to become in order to earn his stripes and lead the forces of humanity against those giant bees.
What makes this so compelling is that this question works itself into every aspect of Ender’s daily life and training, even into the video mind games he plays, the scenarios that develop and the images that pop up. Apparently his state of mind controls some aspects of the game and this comes back to haunt him at the film’s conclusion.
Hood’s adaptation undoubtedly streamlines the 1985 novel. Characters and events that must be pretty significant in the book fly by much too fast. You’re never entirely sure why Ford is so adamant that he has found the hero to save the world in this boy or why Davis is so troubled by this.
Certainly the twist ending justifies just about everything that has come before and the final scene propels the story naturally into a sequel. (Card’s original novel evolved into four sequels plus two spinoff adventures.)
The future designed by Hood and Digital Domain looks good even if it’s a big generic. There are no images that stick in the mind as with the legendary sci-fi movies from “2001” and “Star Wars” to “Gravity” still floating in movie theaters today.
So, no, “Ender’s Game” is not in that league. But it’s a thrilling and efficient sci-fi’er with plenty of action and intrigue for its handful of characters. The young actors are all excellent and the adults never stoop to camp.
Butterfield has a nice creepy look when he stares at opponents or even computer screens, signaling that the line between good and evil within him may be a thin one. Steinfeld is therefore a perfect foil for him as she is nearly always cheerful and projects a sagacity beyond her age.
Ford is back in fine form after the disaster of Branch Rickey in “42.” Viola Davis is never not-good and here she’s wonderful. Kingsley is saddled with a vague character but plays him masterfully.
I do understand that Orson Scott Card is homophobic and possibly racist. You can read about this endlessly on the Internet. This is simply a review of a film based on a flawed author’s novel.
It’s a pity he can imagine worlds and amazing character but can’t love his fellow man.
Opens: November 1, 2013 (Summit Entertainment)
Production: Summit Entertainment, OddLot Entertainment, Chartoff Productions, Taleswapper, K/O Paper Products, Digital Domain
Cast: Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Hailie Steinfeld, Viola Davis, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley, Moises Arias
Director/screenwriter: Gavin Hood
Based on the novel by: Orson Scott Card
Producers: Gigi Pritzker, Linda McDonough, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Robert Chartoff, Lynn Hendee, Orson Scott Card, Ed Ulbrich
Executive producers: Bill Lischak, David Coatsworth, Ivy Zhong, Venkatesh Roddam, Ted Ravinett, Deborah Del Prete, Mandy Safavi
Director of photography: Donald M. McAlpine
Production designers: Sean Haworth, Ben Procter
Music: Steve Jablonsky
Costume designer: Christine Bieselin Clark
Editors: Zach Staenberg, Lee Smith
Rated PG-13, 114 minutes